In my Ethical Theory class this semester, the students have been debating relativism.  I had always taken relativism to be the claim that there are no absolute truths.  But it is slowly dawning on me that maybe this is not how those who call themselves relativists really define the term.  What some of them actually say is that relativism means being open-minded about different perspectives.

The first definition of relativism (believing that there are no absolute truths) suggests that no one can ever really be said to be wrong about anything.  In this respect, those who advocate relativism will say, “that’s true for you but not for me” instead of “I think you are wrong on that point.”  So there is acceptance of a weak notion of truth: the term “true” simply becomes a synonym for “personal belief.”

But the second definition allows a stronger belief in truth.  Being open-minded about different perspectives does not necessitate accepting all perspectives as true.  You can be open-minded about a belief but then, after further consideration, reach the conclusion that it is false.

I am sympathetic to being open-minded.  But I think it is confusing to call this relativism, since a lot of people define relativism according to the the first definition.  Why not just call the second definition “open-mindedness” or “perspectivism”?

Regarding the first definition of relativism, I have never heard a convincing argument against some notion of absolute truth — but I am open-minded.  I would like to hear people’s best attempts to put forth such an argument.  I am doubtful that this is possible, because the claim that “there are no absolute truths” is itself an absolute truth is self-contradictory.

I really do believe that some beliefs that people have are simply untrue.  For example, if someone claims that “women are inferior to men,” or that “men are inferior to women,” I do not think that such statements are true at all.  This is why I do not call myself a relativist.

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